Pakistan in the middle

The US’ grand strategic design for Asia is aimed solely at retaining its unopposed hegemony at the regional and global levels. It feels that China is challenging the global order so painstakingly contrived to serve its vital national interests. The US and its allies are thus moving to circumscribe China’s extra-regional ambitions.
To that end, the US appears to be following an essentially three-pronged strategy. At the geopolitical level, it seeks to isolate China and constrict its expanding sphere of influence. At the geoeconomic level, it intends to stunt China’s rampant economic surge by limiting its access to international markets, restricting trade, curtailing investments, denying it cutting edge futuristic technologies, re-anchoring supply chains elsewhere, and countering its rampaging Belt & Road Initiative (BRI). At the geostrategic level, the US is reimagining and reconstructing the strategic architecture in the Indo-Pacific Region (IPR)-South Asia. Its intent to encircle China is evident by the countries it has mustered to its ranks. It has opted for a forward leaning strategic posture in the IPR-South Asia. Its acquisition of military bases, forward deployments of forces, weapon and support systems portend a possible double envelopment of China from the IPR and South Asia. Its main effort is likely to be launched in the IPR, the secondary effort through India and the auxiliary efforts against the critical Sea Lines of Communication (SLOCs) in the IPR. Critically, it is reinforcing the military capabilities and capacities of its allies; India, Japan, Australia, South Korea, the Philippines, Taiwan, South Pacific Islands, and NATO countries. The US-India Strategic Partnership thus emerges as an essential and critical aspect of US’ grand strategic design. A massive military buildup looms ominously in the larger Asia-Pacific Region, unwaveringly focused on and aimed at China.
The geostrategic situation in the China-India-Pakistan sub-region is however extremely complex. China has improved its military capacities enormously to create strategic balance with the US-led West and its allies. India thus feels constrained to bolster its own military prowess to maintain strategic balance with China. Similarly, Pakistan gets alarmed at India’s growing military clout and moves to restore strategic balance in the Indo-Pak subcontinent. Thus, a domino effect, in continuously straining to maintain strategic balance with potential adversaries, has been the norm in this sub-region. The sub-regional strategic balance thus remains under constant review and flux. There is an ominous downside to this conundrum, too. The US’ efforts to bolster India’s military might, ostensibly against China, inevitably upend the tenuous strategic balance in the Indo-Pak subcontinent. This creates a portentous strategic environment with grave implications at the regional-global levels. The larger the differential in the conventional forces of India and Pakistan, the more will an economically vulnerable Pakistan rely on is strategic assets; consequently, the lower will its nuclear thresholds sink and the earlier will it feel compelled to resort to them.
So, in this convoluted strategic environment, what could the US expect from Pakistan? At the geopolitical level, it might want Pakistan to distance itself from China. This is undoable. China has always distinguished itself as a reliable, trustworthy and credible partner of Pakistan. Pakistan could also be expected to show less enthusiasm for the BRI-CPEC project. However, its economic future is getting more and more entwinned with it and it is most unlikely to do anything ever to delay, disrupt or destroy it. There can be no realistic quid pro quo for it.
The military aspect is however, vital. India finds itself caught in a strategic vise. It has an overbearing PLA along the LAC, a formidable Pakistan military on its western extremes and faces a potential third internal front in the disturbed IIOJK. A potential two-three front war beckons. Ostensibly, anywhere up to 80-90 percent of India’s military might is either deployed or poised against Pakistan. Pakistan’s military has thus literally fixed the much larger Indian military in situ. Any Indian re-deployments to counter China will be obviated by the need to maintain strategic balance on its western frontiers. This reduces India’s freedom of action against China and adversely impacts US’ strategic plans for the region. Therefore, for India to take on China militarily, it will be imperative that all perceived military threats from Pakistan are neutralised. This cannot happen as long as major issues like IIOJK, Indus Water Treaty, Sir Creek, Siachen, and state sponsored terrorism by India persist. Therefore, much to the US’ consternation, the Indian military will continue to be hamstrung against China because of its perceived threats from Pakistan. It lacks the capability and capacity to simultaneously hold the Pakistan front and move against China. The fearsome two-three front war scenario is realistic and much more than a mere hypothesis for India. It will take no chances. It can barely hold its own against Pakistan, much less against China and even lesser against them combined.
Pakistan however finds itself stuck in the middle of a geopolitical conundrum. It is apparently caught in a lose-lose situation. Both principal belligerents in the Asia-Pacific are critically important for it and crucially hold domineering leverages over it. Their expectations from Pakistan will invariably be mutually exclusive. To make matters worse, Pakistan does not seem to have the national leadership that could tackle these very serious challenges prudently. It is generally stymied by its self-interests and repeatedly finds itself trapped in a strategic cul de sac, bereft of viable options. Pakistan needs a fresh, strong, decisive, proactive and nationalistic leadership that can comprehend and confidently overcome these multidimensional challenges that beset it.
However, regardless of the threats or incentives Pakistan must never put down its guard against India. Its implications go beyond the immediate region. Furthermore, it must maintain a very sensitive balance between the two main antagonists in the larger region. Both are inevitable for its geopolitical and economic well-being. Well considered, national interests based multi-alignment is perhaps the best course out of this predicament.

The writer is a retired brigadier of the Pakistan Army. He can be reached at im.k846@gmail.com and tweets @K846Im.

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